Q&A with Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton: The Path Forward


Main court of Rice University

Bill Fulton’s been in Houston since August, listening to city leaders and planning a future for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Last week, at the unveiling of this year’s results of its flagship Kinder Houston Area Survey, he unveiled the organization’s long-term plan.

The “Path Forward” points the institute toward six major study areas, in addition to the ongoing work of the survey: urban disparity and opportunity; urban education and workforce; urban health; urban development, transportation and placemaking; urban governance; and urban resiliency.

Together, those program areas will not only position the institute as a force in improving Houston, the preeminent urban think tank on issues facing sunbelt cities but also one of the leading urban think tanks in the world, Fulton said.

He sat down with Content Editor Andrew Keatts to talk about the institute’s long-term plans.

AK: One thing you said at last week’s luncheon, is that urban think tanks focus on cities and problems of northeast corridor.

BF: A number of them are focusing more and more on worldwide city issues. But historically, urban policy—federal policy on cities—has been shaped in the Northeast corridor for those older types of cities like New York, D.C. and Philadelphia in mind.

AK: You mention the need for one that understands Sun Belt cities and focuses on their problems. Obviously Sun Belt cities are still growing, where others aren’t, but what else is it about Sun Belt cities that makes them distinct?

BF: There’s three things. Sun Belt cities are continuing to experience population growth. They’re continuing to experience significant economic growth, and in the South—though not in the Southwest—they are still sprawling very dramatically.

The suburbanization of poverty is an issue all over the country, but in the Sun Belt cities, I think it’s a much more pronounced thing. In Houston, you just never know where the poor neighborhood is going to be or what its physical manifestation is going to be. I think it’s much more likely that people in low-wage jobs will be in a place where it’s very difficult for them to get to employment. And very often as well, they are located outside the large cities that have the infrastructure to try to deal with big social problems. Houston is a very large city that like most large cities has some capacity to deal with very large social issues, but increasingly the poverty is located out in the unincorporated area of Harris County, that has very little capacity to deal with it. And I think you see that in a lot of places.

In Sun Belt cities, where so many live in very poor but not very dense locations, compares to the old Northeast and Midwestern cities, where the issue was always, “What do you do about concentrated poverty in high density areas where there’s for instance public housing?” That was always the issue you had to deal with in urban policy. Now, you know, and whether it’s L.A. or San Diego or Atlanta or Houston or Dallas or Phoenix, you’ve got these struggling urban residents who live in relatively low density suburban style settings, where you almost have to drive to go anywhere and it’s very difficult to gain access to anything, particularly to jobs. I think that’s one of the big things.

There’s also though, it’s not so much a central city versus suburbs thing, as it used to be in the northeast and Midwest. That’s because many of the suburban areas are located inside the central city.

AK:You’ve talked about treating Houston as a laboratory and having the Kinder Institute look for solutions and apply them. In what way is Houston a case study that’s useful for other cities?

BF: One, it’s a really big city, a really big central city, a really big central county, and one of the six or 7 largest metro areas in the country. Second, its metro area is growing faster than any other metro area in the country. One out of every 15 residents added to the American population last year was added in Houston. Third, it still has a robust blue collar economy, and at the same time it has a tremendous amount of sharp income disparity which is geographically segregated. So what you have is a very robust economy, a pretty robust industrial economy of the type that other cities would like to have, and yet connecting people to those economic opportunities is still a struggle. Not only in terms of upward mobility and education and workforce preparedness, but also geographically.

I’ll say one other thing, which is Houston is not the type of place where government plays as large a role as it does in other cities, and the philanthropic sector and nonprofit sector plays a far more important role. I think that’s probably where the country is going generally, and if Houston can find a way to manage these socioeconomic issues with more of a philanthropic role than in California or the Northeast where the government plays a predominant role, I think that can create a new model for a lot of Sun Belt cities, particularly if they’re in politically conservative states, as so many in the South are.

AK: Government specifically isn’t always set up to try new things and implement solutions, it has a way it does things and it short circuits after that. Is that concerning, when it comes to Kinder producing on-the-ground solutions?

BF: I think what we’ll do is partner with civic and political leaders, so with that we’ll benefit from the philanthropic sector playing a much larger role in Houston than they do in other metros, in terms of getting things done. So if you look at, the whole parks thing, the Bayou parks thing, that’s a half-half public private partnership potentially. In almost any other city, you would float a bond, you try to get voters to approve a bond, and that would be everything. But in Houston, it’s half and half.

So I think part of this is not just to work with the public sector—which, yes, can be sometimes rigid—but also to work with private business and the philanthropic sector in Houston to try to get things done.

Also in Houston, because the government doesn’t always do everything, there is often another path to getting something done. And also, I think, one of the reason I came here from California, is it’s a place where people do get things done and it’s a very much a can-do place. So I don’t think it’ll be much of an impediment based on the culture that characterizes Houston.

AK: Are there any specific program areas you identified in the Path Forward that you’re personally excited about about?

BF: The most important thing we’re taking on is urban disparity, because almost everyone recognizes that disparity and inequality particularly in cities may be the most important issue of our time. All the presidential candidates of all ideological stripes are talking about it. It’s increasingly a topic of conversation in cities across the country.

The one I’m personally most excited by is the one I know the most about, which is urban growth, transportation and placemaking, and urban governance. And actually the more I’ve gotten interested in this, the more excited I’ve gotten excited about Kinder being the facilitator about how to make businesses and neighborhoods in Houston more successful on a small-scale, placemaking level. Because for Houston to succeed in the 21st Century, whether it’s in an affluent business district or a poor neighborhood, it’s clearly going to need better small-scale placemaking so people can walk around more, and new ways to interact. Those things are things I think people in Houston are getting very excited about generally and I think we are going to play a more major role with it than I initially expected.

Andrew Keatts


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